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Members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party are brought in a police vehicle to the appeals court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 10, 2018. © 2018 Samrang Pring/Reuters

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should take urgent measures to reduce the risk that the country’s severely overcrowded prisons will suffer COVID-19 outbreaks, Human Rights Watch said today.

Reducing overcrowding in prisons is important to prevent outbreaks, which would have serious health consequences for prisoners, prison staff, and the broader public. Cambodian authorities should immediately release people who should not be in custody, including pretrial detainees held for minor offenses, and political prisoners. The authorities should consider alternatives to detention for prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, and women who are pregnant or incarcerated with small children.

“Cambodia’s seriously overcrowded prisons are COVID-19 disaster zones waiting to happen,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia should speedily release prisoners at greater risk if infected, as well as those detained for minor offenses, and take urgent steps to ensure prisoners get adequate medical care.”

As of January 2020, 18 of Cambodia’s 28 civilian prisons held 23,748 detainees, including 1,614 women, 43 of them pregnant. The prisons also held 103 children incarcerated with their mothers, and 542 other children. Out of 8,855 convicted prisoners, 619 were women, 4 were girls, and 156 were boys.

In response to fears of COVID-19 in the country’s correctional facilities, Cambodia’s General Department of Prisons announced a temporary suspension of visiting rights on March 25. The only exception is for visitors who obtain medical certificates and undergo temperature checks upon entering prison facilities. The department instructed prison chiefs to quarantine all new detainees for 14 days in “spare rooms” before allowing them to come into contact with other inmates, but failed to provide any details about these procedures and arrangements.

Cambodia’s prisons and detention centers are all well beyond maximum capacity. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) noted there was a “220 percent rise in the number of pregnant women and young children in prison between January 2017 and August 2018.” Human rights defenders have said that as many as 30 prisoners are held in highly unhygienic conditions in small cells.

Those incarcerated have limited access to water, soap, and hand sanitizer, and are in extremely close contact with other prisoners. Independent prison monitors have repeatedly pointed out the harsh conditions for pregnant women and women with children, who face “severe overcrowding, inadequate food and access to health care, scarce contact with their families, and limited time and space for children to play.”

To reduce the risk of transmission in prisons, the government should routinely monitor all patients for symptoms, immediately test those who become ill, isolate those who test positive, and quarantine prisoners who were in close contact with those found to have COVID-19. International guidance provides that prisoners should also be able to maintain a distance of six feet from all other prisoners, including in housing and at meals, and guards should be routinely screened to ensure that they are not sick.

Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 2 (CC2), the only prison in Cambodia reserved solely for women and children, has an official capacity of 350 inmates. In January, CC2 held 1,850 prisoners. The death in late January of a 5-month-old baby who had fallen gravely sick while imprisoned with her mother at CC2 highlights the urgent need to find alternatives to detention for mothers with children.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and Cambodian human rights groups have repeatedly urged the authorities to use pretrial detention only as a “last resort,” respecting the presumption of innocence.

Human Rights Watch reiterates its call to release all political prisoners, including human rights defenders, members or supporters of the political opposition, and citizens who peacefully exercised their right to free expression.

On March 15, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a guide, “Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention,” which states, “Enhanced consideration should be given to resorting to non-custodial measures at all stages of the administration of criminal justice, including at the pre-trial, trial and sentencing as well as post-sentencing stages. Priority should be given to alleged offenders and prisoners with low-risk profiles and caring responsibilities, with preference given to pregnant women and women with dependent children.”

The guidance says that for prisoners who are not being released, there is an “increased need for emotional and psychological support, for transparent awareness-raising and information-sharing on the disease, and for assurances that continued contact with family and relatives will be upheld.” Furthermore, WHO stresses that “Adequate measures should be in place to protect persons in isolation from any form of ill treatment and to facilitate human contact as appropriate and possible in the given circumstances.”

The Human Rights Watch report on the human rights dimensions of the COVID-19 response analyzed government obligations and the human rights concerns posed by the outbreak. Governments should reduce their prison populations through early release of low-risk detainees, including those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, or whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or unjustified.

Prisoners at high risk of serious effects from the virus, such as older people and those with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for release, taking into consideration whether the detention facility has the capacity to protect their health, including access to adequate treatment, and such factors as the gravity of the crime and time served. Prison authorities should publicly disclose their plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in their facilities and the steps they will take to contain the infection and protect prisoners, staff, and visitors.

“The Cambodian government needs to immediately reduce the prison population while undertaking rigorous testing inside prisons to isolate those who are sick,” Robertson said. “Foreign donors should urge the Cambodian government to abide by international guidance and human rights standards, which would be in the best interest not only of prisoners and prison staff, but also the Cambodian people.”

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